“I was born and raised here in San Francisco. My parents were not big readers but my father was an antiques collector and because we had a bunch of old book shelves around the house, he filled them with old books. And that’s mainly how I started reading. When you’re bored as a kid you just pull down these books. It’s kind of strange to me now – some of the choices I made when I was 11 or 12. I used to love W Somerset Maugham’s work, and I wonder in retrospect if that’s in part because I liked his name.
Thinking about writing for me now starts with the setting more than anything. The place gives life to the different characters. I would go out and try to experience as much as I could. With both novels it required three trips each (the first, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, to Lapland and the second, The Lovers, to Turkey). I usually go on the last trip when I am halfway through the book, and I’m retracing the characters. I put myself in their shoes. I’m always surprised where I end up.
I have plans to start a new novel this year. That’s my goal, and something I’ve talked about. I have two different ideas that I’ve been working on. So right now I just have to figure out which book I really want to work on and see where it leads me. One is set in Sweden and one is set in New Zealand.
It’s lonely, in a way, writing. So I really can’t imagine being without The Believer. I have always been fond of the long interview format, like in The Paris Review, but with people other than writers – philosophers and musicians. I thought, what if you had four different interviewees in an issue and asked them the same question. It wouldn’t be an obvious question like where did you grow up, but very in-depth, rather obscure, and that would be in red or something. We still haven’t done that, even though we’re up to 75 issues – doing the red type. I still hope to do that.
The Believer was difficult at the beginning, because you are trying to find content and advertising for a magazine and you don’t have anything to show anyone. You can’t say hey, check this out. The main difficulty in the beginning was just getting people to write for us. Writing is a very solitary act. That’s why it’s so important for me to spend time on The Believer, having a conversation with co-editors about what should be in the magazine and working with writers, as well as receiving letters from readers. My days are definitely very different: I spend a couple days just focused entirely on The Believer, another three entirely on writing.
I get up when the kids do, at around 06:30 every morning, and by 08:00 my daughter has to be at preschool. Dave [Eggers] and I alternate taking them to school. Today he took them, and I’m writing from home. So, I’ll read the paper, go for a run and try and get 1,000 words out. In my down time I do yoga, I read, I watch old movies. My favourite old film, even though I’ve only seen it once, is a Rossellini film called Viaggio in Italia. I saw it in Italy when I was 20 and I still think of it. My second novel, The Lovers, is influenced by it. There’s a scene in the movie where the woman – played by Ingrid Bergman – who can’t have a baby, sees all these women carrying babies, pushing strollers and prams. It’s really an example of heightened reality because there is no way there were so many babies on that street, but she’s seeing it that way. And I had that image in my mind when I was creating The Lovers. The fact that this woman, Yvonne, goes back to Turkey and – being a widow – she sees couples and lovers all around.
Tonight, I have to do a reading of The Lovers. I love meeting readers. It’s not like a play, where afterwards it’s applause or no applause – you don’t really know if people like your work. So to hear people’s reactions – it’s amazing.
In the US, book tours are really popular. Writers come to bookstores and do their readings and afterwards you sign books that readers either buy there or bring with them. There’s one incident I remember: a woman came up to me and said she was going to buy my book for an e-reader, so she didn’t really have anything for me to sign – kind of an awkward moment. It made me think of the future of these book tours.
These days, working on films has become a sort of fun break between novels. The original screenplay that Dave and I wrote together was very liberating. We were both working on intense books at the time; me on Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, he on What is the What. We would just meet in the living room, wanting a break, and we both love film. We had been watching a lot of Hal Hartley films at the time, and we decided to try to see if something came out of it, which it did. Next, I’m adapting Northern Lights. It’s such a different process than writing something original. But it’s so good to have such a variety of projects – and the editing and teaching that I do, they give me a good excuse not to write when I don’t want to.”
The plot so far
1971: Born San Francisco
1989: Attends Middlebury College, Vermont
1993: Interns at the ‘Paris Review’, New York
1996: Gains Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University
1999: Publishes first book, ‘Girls on the Verge’
2003: Co-founds ‘The Believer’
2003: Publishes first novel, ‘And Now You Can Go’
2007: Publishes ‘Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name’
2009: Premiere of co-written ‘Away We Go’
2010: Publishes ‘The Lovers’
First published in March 2003 and now pushing nearly 80 issues, The Believer bills itself as a magazine “where length is no object”.
Specialising in long-format interviews with philosophers, musicians, filmmakers and writers, it also publishes musings on anything from light bulbs to presidents.
Co-edited by Vida, her Columbia flatmate Heidi Julavits, and Ed Park, circulation hovers at around 20,000 for the 10-times-a- year publication. It’s a niche production, with annual issues dedicated to music (usually leaning towards the more obscure), film and art. Small, yes, but tight aesthetics and a coherent but experimental style put it at the top of the reading pile.